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The hon. Gentleman asks who should give evidence to the board of inquiry, and my current state of knowledge is that it would be expected that evidence would come from the sort of sources that he indicates. I apologise for this, but I cannot at this stage tell him for certain whether his specific question about the procedures involved in the inquiries can be answered in either the affirmative or the negative. I would be astonished if the board of inquiry, whose procedure is not in my control, did not take evidence of that kind,
but I shall look into the matter. If there is any additional information that should be given to the hon. Gentleman or the House, I shall take the necessary steps to ensure that that is done.
Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): May I associate myself with the condolences that have been expressed? My right hon. Friend described some of the Iraq casualties as youths, but two were reported to be children aged 10 and 11. Will that be considered by the inquiry, and will the Iraqis be able to contribute to it? The exit strategy announced by the Secretary of State was lamentable. If it is a question of whether the police are ready, it should be borne in mind that it was the British troops who, I am afraid, inflamed the crowd and the police who helped to quieten it. Unless there is a proper time scale, there can be no real exit strategy. May I ask the Secretary of State to think about that again?
Mr. Browne: My hon. Friend can be reassured that since I began this job, our commitment to Iraq has been at the forefront of my mind. It is constantly in my mind. Whatever our respective positions may be on whether we should have engaged in the war in the first place, the fact is that we are in Iraq now, under the terms of United Nations resolution 1637, and we have a specific job to do in that context, along with our allies. I look to my hon. Friend, and other Members, to support those whom we charge with the responsibility of carrying out that task in very dangerous circumstances.
The four elements of the exit strategy set out by my predecessor, the present Home Secretary, in the House and elsewhere appear to me to provide a template for an appropriate withdrawal, and not to lend themselves to demands, such as my hon. Friends, for a specific timetable. I am sure I shall learn more about whether this is the case, but I suggest to my hon. Friend that it is arguable that we would put our troops in danger if we did what he has invited me to do.
With respect, I must correct my hon. Friend, in that I am not aware that any part of my statement reflected, in any sense, the ages of any possible casualties in the group who were involved in the disorder surrounding the incident. I give my hon. Friend the answer that I have given others: I am not in a position to confirm the age, or any other details, of anyone who may have been a casualty in that crowd.
Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): In welcoming the Secretary of State to his new position, may I warn him that he has a hard act to follow? He has, however, made an excellent start, not only in coming to the House so quickly to make his statement but in his expression of the sympathy that we all feel for the families of those who have died. It is difficult to find the good news in statements such as this, but the news that the governor of Basra has resumed co-operation with the British authorities is undoubtedly good news. Will the Secretary of State tell us what form he expects that co-operation to take? Does he regard it as a signal that the Iraqi authorities
are unlikely to wish to break off relations again, despite the challenges that he, we and they will face?
Mr. Browne: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his welcome. I am all too aware of the comparisons that will be made between my predecessor and me, and of what will be said about the skill with which he carried out his duties. I am a great admirer of my right hon. Friend who is now the Home Secretaryas, obviously, is the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot)and I think that he did an admirable job as Secretary of State for Defence. Despite the challenge that that poses, there could be no better person to follow. I shall observe the template that my right hon. Friend established for the job as far as I can, but I shall try to be my own person as well. Even in these early days, it is clear to me that the working relationship between my right hon. Friend and the right hon. Gentleman and his Select Committee was productive and supportive, if challenging. I hope to continue that relationship.
The right hon. Gentleman asked me a question that, unfortunately, I cannot answer specifically, except to say that we are pleased that the relationship to which he referred has been remade against the plan that we had set out, despite the fact that this incident occurred in the past couple of days. That relationship will be a partnership, the whole purpose of which will be to sustain that relationship towards transition. I am sure that the challenges that the right hon. Gentleman set out are only too well known and accepted by those on the ground in Basra with whom we charge those responsibilities. The extent to which they have moved the position with the council and the governor, despite the pressures that must have been generated by the events of the past couple of days, is testimony to the robustness of that relationship.
Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I add my condolences to those expressed to the families concerned, and I welcome my right hon. Friend to his new post. As someone who has been to Iraq four times in the past three years, most recently in March, I concur with my right hon. Friends view that southern Iraq is not on the brink of civil war, and I agree that the capacity of the Iraqi armed forces and police in southern Iraq has been increased. But can he assure the House today that British troops will not be withdrawn before those security services have the capacity to ensure that the security that local people need can be delivered?
Mr. Browne: I thank my hon. Friend for his welcome. His support for our forces in Iraq, which he has expressed by visiting that country, is very welcome and much appreciated. I can give him an unequivocal and positive response to his question; indeed, the answer to it is implicit in the conditionality set out by my predecessorto which I adhereconcerning the transition and the draw-down of troops from Iraq. However, that is but one aspect of one of four conditions; the others will also have to be met before we proceed.
Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): The Secretary of State referred to the television footage, but
notwithstanding the dreadful events and shocking scenes that we witnessed, does he not agree that the television camera is of necessity a distorting lens, and that for the most part, the huge majority of the people of Basra had an ordinary day?
Mr. Browne: The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. If, in a city of 1.5 million, 200 to 300 people of a very obvious age range are involved in a disturbance, it is clear, by a process of elimination, that others are not. My understanding is indeed that the rest of the city was going about its normal business on that day. The hon. Gentlemans point about media coverage is partly true. I was brought up to believe that the camera never lies, which is probably right; it is how one deploys what the camera produces that may well givesometimes inadvertentlya distorted picture in its totality. But we live in an age of 24-hour news and visual news, and it is incumbent on us to accommodate that fact when communicating information ourselves. I take this opportunity to express my personal thanks to General Cooper and others, who, in very difficult circumstances, made themselves available to the media in order to give an authoritative voice from the theatre and to explain what was happening on the ground. I had no doubt, as I watched the coverage unfold on Saturday, that that was very helpful in shaping the development of later coverage.
Sarah McCarthy-Fry (Portsmouth, North) (Lab): Like others in all parts of the House, I want to pay tribute to those who lost their lives this weekend and to welcome my right hon. Friend to his new position. I was in Basra in March, along with my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), and I spoke to senior military officers, who agreed that there is a fine line between our presence there being part of the solution and being part of the problem. However, they are much of the opinion that our presence is still part of the solution, because we are training the Iraqi forces to manage their own security and thereby reducing the need for the British presence in the long term. Given the support given by the Iraqi forces to the British troops to quell the unrest after the crash, does my right hon. Friend agree that that is yet another indication that we are still part of the solution, not part of the problem?
Mr. Browne: I agree, and I am all too acutely awareas are those who lead our armed forcesthat there is a constant tension between being seen in a positive light and getting to the stage where that becomes a difficulty. It is the very appreciation of that tension that has instructed the way in which we approach the whole issue of transition.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): I congratulate the Secretary of State on his appointment. As a former Secretary of State for Defence, I have no doubt that he will find working in the Ministry of Defence and with the armed forces both a privilege and a pleasure. With regard to his statement, I am less impressed than he appears to be by the announcement by the governor of Basra that he is willing to resume co-operation with our security forces. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is intolerable
that, at a time when our armed forces are not only risking their lives butas we have sadly heard todaylosing them, that the governor of Basra and his colleagues should consider it a matter of choice whether they co-operate with British security forces? Will the Government impress on the Government of Iraq at all levels that unless we get the fullest co-operation from the Iraqi security authorities as a matter of course, it will be impossible to sustain a British military presence in that country?
Mr. Browne: I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his welcome. He can be assured that in the short time that I have been in the Ministry of Defenceand I have been in the Ministry itself for practically all the time that I have been the Secretary of State for DefenceI have already come to the same conclusion that he urges on me. In relation to the conclusion that he draws about the necessity of co-operation with the provincial authorities in reaching the joint objective of being able to hand over, he is rightand he can rest assured that we will take any opportunity to impress those arguments on the Iraqi authorities. I do not suggest that the steps that have been taken over the past few days are the eventual solution to the challenge, but they are certainly a step in the right direction. Because of the significant hard work by people on the ground in relation to the authorities, those steps are in a direction that would have been unthinkable a comparatively short time ago.
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): I add my personal condolences to all the families who lost dear ones, on behalf of myself, my party and the Scottish National party. I was in Basra last year and I picked up much anger and some resentment about the infrastructure that still needed repair, such as sanitation, clean water and electricity. I appreciate the fact that the right hon. Gentleman has only just come into his post, but I urge him to see whether more can be done to reinstate those necessary services.
Mr. Browne: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his expression of condolences on behalf of the parties for whom he speaks, and I accept and welcome them on behalf of those for whom they are intended. I am in no doubt that as well as the military objectives that we set ourselves, the reconstruction objectives are very important to pacification and the restoration of normality of life and opportunity for the people of Iraq. The hon. Gentleman does not need to remind me of that, but he makes a valuable point. I know that the long-term pacification of Iraq and the opportunity for its citizens to live a full life in a democratic societyas they want to dodepends on both coming together.
Mr. Boris Johnson (Henley) (Con): In paying tribute to the sacrifice of the Lynx crew, two of whom came from RAF Benson in my constituency, I wish to ask the Secretary of State whether he agrees that the risks to British forces seem to have increased considerably in the past year. If he does agree, could he give a political analysis of why that might be the case and what we can do about it?
Mr. Browne: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. Because of his constituency interest, I am aware that he will face some responsibilities in relation to the consequences of the incident. If we can give him any support, he need only ask. He asked me to make a comparative analysis of the level of risk. Given the time that I have been at the Ministry of Defence, it would be inappropriate for me to accept his invitation to do that. However, on the assumption that the assessment is correct, it would seem to me to be a reflection of the response of those who want to stop Iraq moving and making a transition to where we all want it to be, because the progressalbeit tentativethat I have been talking about from the Dispatch Box today must be as manifest to them as it is to us.
Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): I welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his new post and wish him well. On behalf of my right hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and my hon. Friends in the Democratic Unionist party, I express sincere sympathy and extend our condolences to all the families who have endured such loss. No one can understand the grief or pain that they are going through, and our hearts go out to them. I assure the Secretary of State that the people of Northern Ireland will stand four-square with our soldiers who have gone to the front line in defence of freedom, and assure them of our support while they fight the battle in Iraq.
Mr. Browne: All I can do is express my thanks to the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. Because of the tragic experiences in the all too recent past of the people whom he represents, there is a certain poignancy in his remarks. I know that they will be even more greatly appreciated by those for whom they are intended, because they are informed by the experiences of the hon. Gentleman and others in Northern Ireland.
Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): The Secretary of State will be aware that in the next few days the bodies of the dead will come back to RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire, where the Oxford coroner will have to carry out inquiries into the deaths. A coroners inquiry has yet to be mounted in more than 60 cases, and it is no exaggeration to say that the families of the dead cannot complete the mourning process until those inquiries have been carried out. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that the coroner will have the assets that he requires to make sure that the families of those heroes and that heroine receive their due reward?
Mr. Browne: The hon. Gentleman raises an important matter, of which I have to confess that I was unaware when I came to the Dispatch Box; he brings it to my attention entirely appropriately. However, because of information that I received as he was asking his question, I am able to assure him that we have already identified additional resources and that we are actively looking at ways to achieve the objective that he sets out. I can understand the effect that such delay would have on those who are grieving, and from my period as Minister with responsibility for victims in Northern Ireland, I know how important it is for people suffering such losses to have closure for certain
stages of the grieving process. The hon. Gentleman can rest assured that I shall look at the matter with some urgency.
Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): Having marked the right hon. Gentleman in his first ministerial job, I give him my genuine personal congratulations on the assumption of a great office of state, while deploring the appalling circumstances that bring him to the House of Commons so early in his tenure. May I draw his attention to the fact that he did not challenge the assumptions underlying the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) about the deterioration of the security situation for our troops in southern Iraq? In an incident completed in four hours, rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and small arms were concentrated against our armed forces and the evidence suggests that the situation with regard to popular opinion towards our armed forces in southern Iraq has gone from relatively benign in 2003 to quite difficult. Will the Secretary of State bear that in mind, and apply the lessons to Afghanistan, where in Helmand province the situation is likely to be much more malign?
Mr. Browne: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks; I know that his expressions of congratulation and support are genuine. With respect, he may have misunderstood my response to his hon. Friends question, although they are genuinely in the same area. I sought not to respond to the question from a basis, effectively, of ignorance, I concede: his hon. Friend asked me to draw a comparison about the risk, and I do not feel able to do sobut what I can say, of course, having spoken to those who on the ground, is that, in the parlance that they use, we appear to be going though a spike of violence. Their assessment of that, however, was reflected in the answer that I gave his hon. Friend, which was that it is an expression of the determination of those who want to stop Iraq becoming a democratic and free country, because they can see the direction of travel that is going on. I am afraid that I must disappoint the hon. Gentleman in response to the peroration of his question, because he invites me into a whole other theatre of conflict, and if the House does not mind, I will restrict myself to questions about the incident and Iraq at this stage and not be drawn into discussing Afghanistan at the moment.
Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): As a former guardsman who served in a unit when one of my colleagues went missing in action, whose body has never been found, I am deeply concerned that the Secretary of States statement said missing believed killed. Can the Secretary of State let us know where the remains of our heroes are? Are they in the British Armys possession, so that we can bring them home and let them rest with their families and loved ones?
Mr. Browne: The hon. Gentleman draws me into a level of detail that I have been urged not to be drawn into by those who are responsible for the health and welfare of the families of those missing, presumed killed. Over the past 48 hours or thereabouts, Ihave been schooled in the vocabulary of these
announcements, but I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurancehe will know this from his own experiencethat the armed forces are giving the families of those whom we believe were killed in the incident the level of support that would be expected. I have absolutely no doubt that there is a level of communication going on there that would be entirely inappropriate in public.
Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): The loss of five brave servicemen and women is truly a terrible event. I should have thought that the immediate crowd on the ground would have been there to see whether they could help our servicemen. As the Secretary of State has stated, 200 to 300 people appeared to celebrate the downing of the helicopter. Will he explain or give some indication of what he thinks the motives of that crowd were?
Mr. Browne: With respect, I am probably the last person on earth to be asked about the motives of a crowd in Basra, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman about my own professional experience prior to my election to the House, when I practised for some time in the criminal courts in Scotland. Unfortunately, on occasion, serious violent incidents arose from the behaviour of mobs and/or crowds. The one thing that I learned during that time was that it was very difficult to try to get to the bottom of the behaviour of a crowd of people. Sometimes crowds of people come together for perfectly innocent reasons, and then behave in mob ways that are difficult to fathom. That was my experience. I was reinforced in that analysis by comments that have come directly from officers in Basra in communications and interviews over the weekend. I have heard, I think, Brigadier Everardif I have identified the wrong officer, I apologiseexpress exactly the same emotions in response to a question that he was asked in an interviewon the BBC, I think. It would be unhelpful to speculate about why
things may have happenedbut one can hope that the investigations will reveal some information that will enable us to ensure that they do not happen again.
Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): I join the Secretary of State in echoing the condolences to the families. My local regiment was part of the response unit that went to help with the helicopter crash. However, wider questions are raised about how Iraq is progressing, as was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt). What we endured here in the UK, in London on 7/7, would be an average day in Iraq. We lost about 50 civilians on that day. In Iraq, 1,300 civilians are lost every month; there is an average of 60 attacks a day, and about 30 bodies are found on the streets every day. How high must the death toll rise until the Secretary of State agrees that there is a state of civil war? How long must we endure the hostilities between the Shiites and the Sunnis before the Secretary of State acknowledges that Iraq might be better off if it were encouraged to divide peacefully into three separate states?
Mr. Browne: I think that the hon. Gentleman seeks to encourage me to give a figurewhich, of necessity, would be arbitraryfor a point at which we would automatically change our position. I do not wish to repeat what I have already said in the House: I have made my position as Secretary of State for Defence clear, and it is entirely consistent with the Governments position and that expressed previously by my right hon. Friend the present Home Secretary when he was in this post. In my view, wherever we come from as regards the endeavour in the first place, we are there now, and we are mandated by the United Nations to carry out a job. That job needs to be done. My objective in this post is to support those whom we have tasked with that job. The issues that the hon. Gentleman raises have been responded to many times from the Dispatch Box, and I can add nothing to the clarity of answer that he has no doubt received in the past.
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